When most of the role-playing community think about the player base, they usually think of teenagers and upwards. The argument is typically that there is adult content in many of the books and that younger children will not be able to follow the often complex rules. However, children are literally made to play pretend.
When I first set out to teach my own children role-playing games, I first thought about over-simplifying. I’ve written previously about No Thank You Evil and that was certainly helpful–but we only played this after we’d already played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons! I really think that most people can make roll playing games accessible to kids. For the purposes of this article, I’m focusing on Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, but can be generalized for your role-playing game of choice. My only caveat is that certain worlds and systems are designed to be incredibly dark and not accessible to younger people. You could certainly alter the world to make it more child-friendly, but why? Unless you created the game or have not played any other systems, it’s far easier to use a world that can be made PG more easily.
New to RPGs Yourself?
For those who have never played before, my first piece of advice would be to familiarize yourself with the rules. Read through at least the Basic Rules, and it’s better if you can pick up the Starter Set or the Player’s Handbook. Read through it. Make sure you understand at least the basics before you introduce the idea to your children. Kids don’t like to think about the rules; they just like to play. There are also a number of guides to help streamline the rules for both you and them once you get started. You need familiarity. But don’t get so bogged down on the specifics of the rules that your kids get bored. Remember that the story is the most important part.
Once you have achieved basic familiarity with the rules, it’s time to run. I recommend using some of the pre-generated characters at first if you’re not used to the rules, or use “standard array” to get the scores for your ability stats. There are literally hundreds of free and inexpensive modules to use, but you’ll want to choose something quick and fun for kids for your first couple of sessions. Make it fun. This is a game, after all. If you forget some of the rules, no big deal. I also recommend having a cheat sheet for your players. This website also has some great cheat sheets and basic rules specifically designed for younger players or players with special needs.
If you are really stuck, there are a few board games you can play that are basically an introduction to RPGs. Legacy of Dragonholt is a great one, as is No Thank You Evil. It’s out of print for now, but my son started on HeroQuest.
Gaming with kids is a little different than gaming with your friends. Well, sort of. The side conversations, snacking, general feeling of herding cats–that’s all still there. However, I find that most kids really enjoy the imagination portion and take to it much more naturally than adult gamers. Although there are always some exceptions, they are fast and light with the rules. They have shorter attention spans than most adults, and understand social etiquette and turn taking less well.
None of this means you cannot game with children. It simply means that you should not expect them to do what their brains are not yet ready to do, and you should expect them to do what they are hard wired to do. Most kids benefit from visual structure that lets them understand things better. Having cheat sheets or more visually appealing and easier to follow character sheets can be helpful for many children. Do not drop them into an overwhelming world. Children think in terms of their immediate surroundings. Even more than adults just beginning a campaign, kids will not care who was the ruling emperor of a neighboring country three hundred years ago. They probably will want to know the specific names of people in the town and what they are up to more than many veteran gamers might.
Therefore, I tend to build the village and print out or present the map with names of places right from the beginning. I make sure that the NPCs are well fleshed out. I do voices more frequently with kids than I do with adults, in part because it’s much harder to feel embarrassed around children. For monsters, I usually show them the pictures of what they are confronting or stick to things they know (dinosaurs, dragons, zombies, skeletons).
Switch up action with talking. Make sure your players are all active and participating. Although D&D only gives turn rules for combat, I recommend with a group of kids making other sections turn based, as well. I have also gamed with children with autism to build social skills. Even more visual structure is necessary, and we actually have a timer for that group.
We also have the “nope” rule. If something is too scary or too much, a kid can nope out. This is an idea unabashedly stolen from Monte Cook Games, but it was such a great idea, I knew we had to use it. We have index cards with an “X” written on them that the child can just hand to me to avoid a big conversation, and I simply help redirect away from that topic. This also works for adults, by the way, and helps keep your table safe and fun for everyone.
I also try to keep sessions shorter than I normally would. Stop while the kids are still having fun and leave them wanting more. If you let things drag or wait until they are bored, they won’t want to come back again. I probably over-utilize the cliffhanger with kids, too, but they seem to love it.
I have printed pictures of the monsters they face so they understand what they are facing each time, and also include pictures of important places. I do not have a lot of artistic talent, and this is for private use, so I will typically just look up pictures online. If I’m planning to post in a location that others can see, though, I will use pictures I have the rights to, or have a friend draw up what I’d like.
I use map creator tools like Inkarnate to help the kids visualize the immediate terrain. Again, just like with the rest of the campaign, they prefer to think on a smaller scale than a lot of adults, so I have more focused village maps, and often even maps of their homes or immediate area within a village or city. I have a map for my own use that shows the full continent, but I don’t recall ever showing this to the kids; they have never cared to see it, because they simply do not think that way. If they want to see, or if you have a particular child who enjoys that kind of thing, though, that’s helpful to have. Even just putting it on paper is handy if you don’t want to worry about learning new tech or just want something handy to have.
Above all, remember that this is meant to be fun. Keeping things shorter than you would with adults, using cheat sheets to remember the rules, focusing on making sure that the kids feel safe and supported, and having visual guides to what’s happening–these are all ways to get your kids started in role playing games. Have fun!